Sunday, 12 January 2014

Facts, opinions and beliefs

In my post of a few days back, about my intention to give up opinions for Lent, I made an attempt to differentiate between facts and opinions, giving as one example that “Jesus was born under Caesar Augustus” is a fact, where “Jesus is Lord over all” is an opinion.

In the comment threads on the post here and on Facebook, some commenters made the same point – that they believe “Jesus is Lord over all” to be not an opinion but a fact – whether or not one agrees with it.  As one commenter put it on Facebook, “Either Jesus is Lord over all or he is not” – which I guess is one way of defining a fact.

These comments made me think about this harder.  I know what I meant and I saw what they meant too.  Hmm.

When it comes to something like “Christmas pudding is delicious”, I think it’s clear enough that’s an opinion.  Yet it is stated as a fact.  Personally I hate Christmas pudding, and I recognize that stating it to be delicious is just someone expressing a point of view – and opinion.  Yet one might say, well surely Christmas pudding is delicious or it is not; which is correct?  It can quickly be seen that not only could the statement never be verified, it is inherently unverifiable, because what is delicious to one person tastes horrible to another.  The deliciousness, however well-made the pudding is, has to do with personal preference.  So, though it is stated as though it were a fact, “Christmas pudding is delicious” can only ever be an opinion, even if a popular one.

Opinions are often stated as facts in this way, that’s why we get so muddled between the two. 

However, the “Jesus is Lord” comments brought into clarity for me the question of invisible realities – spiritual truths.  Also, some assertions may propose facts that are hard to verify.

Talking this over with the Badger, he gave as a similar example that climate change is a fact (ie the changing of the climate through human activity is really, scientifically happening) yet some people deny it.  He suggested that “Jesus is Lord over all” might be in the same category – a fact that many deny.

So, let’s go back to something simpler. 
“This Christmas pudding is delicious” says Fred – expressing an opinion as though it were a fact.  Then he asks “Can I have some more?” His wife Mary says, “No, there’s none left.”  She made three and believes him to have eaten the last one.

In that case, “There’s none left” is surely a statement of fact, not an opinion.  I think by any definition it would be categorized as fact not opinion.

Even so, it isn’t necessarily true.  Perhaps Mary got confused.  Maybe she lost count watching Fred eat all that Christmas pudding.  Maybe he’d finished the second one and the third was still in the larder.  Maybe she forgot she’d made three not two.  Maybe Fred’s mother brought him one because she knows he loves Christmas pudding, so they had four not three.

Mary could be wrong for so many reasons; even so, “There’s none left” would be agreed by most as a statement of fact not opinion.

The nub of the matter is to do with something being objectively verifiable.  If Mary and Fred examine every single item in the house and not one turns out to be a Christmas pudding, “There’s none left” is established as a fact.  Which is to say, it was always a fact, Mary’s assertion was a statement of fact; but now it’s established indisputably as true.

Facts are assertions that can be established, proved.  They are objective not subjective statements of reality.  They are “reality” not “my reality”.  Fred saying “Well, Christmas pudding is delicious and that’s a fact whatever you say” does not make it a fact.  It just makes it a strongly held opinion and demonstrates that Fred can’t distinguish between opinion and fact.  Likewise if Fred says: “Ah, but it’s not true to say ‘There’s none left’ when there’s a whole shelf of Christmas puddings at the store,” that may be arguable but it makes Mary’s assertion “There’s none left” no less of a fact, since they had been discussing the state of affairs in their own home.

So, some assertions of fact can be mistaken, some facts over time turn out to be false not true and are no longer regarded as fact, just mistakes.  But even when they turn out to be false after all, that doesn’t reclassify them as opinions – just wrong, mistaken, inaccurate.

So then we come to “Jesus is Lord over all.”

Is this a fact or an opinion?  Certainly it’s a tenet of belief, a statement of faith, and might that be a third category – neither fact nor opinion?

The way to judge between whether something is a fact or an opinion is whether it can be objectively verified. 

Of course a fact may still be a matter of disagreement. Mary may say “There’s no Christmas pudding left” and Fred may still say “Yes, there is”.  To verify which statement of fact is correct, they go and look.  One will turn out to be true and one false, but both were statements of fact not opinion even if only one could be right.

In giving up opinions for Lent, I won’t refuse to tell you if the mail has been delivered if you ask me – but I might still be wrong.

Now then – “Jesus is Lord over all”.

Is it a fact or an opinion?  Is it objectively verifiable?  Can you take me and show me?  Can you demonstrate it?   Looking at the state of the world and the personal lives of most people you know, even Christians, does it seem likely?  Given that Jesus himself said “My kingdom is not of this world”, is “Jesus is Lord over all” indisputably accurate?   Is it so much a minority view that insisting it to be a fact is just a provocative assertion of opinion?

I think Christians would say that “Jesus is Lord over all” is a fact which in time will be indisputably demonstrated.   People who don’t believe it now would be like Mary saying “There’s none left” because she didn’t know about the Christmas pudding Fred’s mother left in the larder, she hadn’t seen it for herself.  One day when the great Larder of Life is opened, atheists will see for themselves.

But in the meantime, the lordship of Jesus is unverifiable.  It can be personally experienced as undeniably real – yet even then it is impossible to substantiate.  A person may say “Jesus is Lord over my life anyway”: but one might say, “No he isn’t.  How can he be when you just spend £350 on a coat when this woman and her children are starving in a refugee camp?”  And they would have a point.

Even so, I think my commenters put their finger on something that can’t be ignored when they said “Jesus is Lord” is not merely opinion – it’s not the same kind of statement as “Christmas pudding is delicious.

I think there are three categories:

Fact (which may be true or false)

Beliefs cannot be objectively verified, but they are more general than opinions – not merely expressions of personal preference or point of view.

So I see the point of view of the people who said I was wrong in asserting “Jesus is Lord to be an opinion, but I still feel uneasy with fact as a categorization – because one cannot demonstrate it at all, only believe it.  I would suggest it belongs in that third category of beliefs.  A belief is a fact that it is impossible to verify.  A fact is a belief that can be verified.  An opinion is neither.

Even so, I would draw your attention to the dictionary definition I gave as a link in the original post, that says one definition of an opinion is a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.

As for climate change, I think that’s a factual issue but not yet verified.

In Lent, I won’t be giving up expressing beliefs in private worship; but, as beliefs can contain seeds of war as well as seeds of peace, I will be careful when and how I express them, and try to make it clear that what I am saying is a belief not a (verifiable) fact.

Also in Lent I guess I will still hold opinions – I’ll still think Christmas pudding is horrible – but I will be trying to keep my opinions to myself, and express my thoughts in other ways than opinions.

Sorry this took so long to say.  It’s a bit complicated, isn’t it!


Rachel marsh said...

And of course - the above is your opinion of what is a fact and what an opinion ...

Pen Wilcock said...


Good joke, made me laugh - but it isn't really. It's an analysis based on universally agreed definitions.

Buzzfloyd said...

The fact that so many people really can't distinguish between facts and opinions is, in my opinion, infuriating.

I think this is a good analysis. I, like the dictionary-makers, would include a belief as an opinion, but I recognise that some people may be uncomfortable with this owing to the connotation of falseness that can attach itself to the term 'opinion' (eg "It's only your opinion", ie "You can think that if you like, but you're wrong").

Rebecca said...

It IS rather complicated.
And one day every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess that Jesus is Lord.
Until then I shall attempt in my own awkward but sincere way to demonstrate that He is MY Lord.

Anonymous said...

I'm loving how this is stretching my brain :-D My head hurts slightly less and I'm still looking forward to reading how you get on :-D

Judy Olson said...

Something to ponder: If we all kept our opinions to ourselves, would that be a good thing?

Unknown said...

Hi Pen! I just discovered your website yesterday and have enjoyrd reading the blog and related links. I was thinking this morning about the latest topic, fact vs opinion. I would say that there is a 3rd category and that would be Truth. Facts may change but Truths never do. For example, it may be a fact that town X has 1000 citzens today, but as soon as someone is born, dies or moves away that fact will change. Using the statement "Jesus is Lord of all" would I believe fall into the category of Truth. As another commentor suggested, even though some may not acknowledge Him as Lord does not change the spititual-realm Truth that He is truly Lord of all. I could go on but in essence a Truth is not dependent on people believing it or not

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi friends - welcome, Don :0)

We were talking about all this in our household today, and one of us suggested two other categories or sub-definitions: factual statements and lies.

Thinking of Mary and Fred with their Christmas pudding in the cupboard - Mary could be hiding the pudding from Fred, so when she said "there's none left", it would be a lie. It's not her opinion, and it's not a fact. Yet it is a factual statement (although a lie). A factual statement is one which has factual content rather than opinion (opinion involves some kind of value judgement, possibly?) but may or may not be accurate and true.

For example, my sister said the only thing she ever learned in Geography lessons at school was that the Manchester Ship Canal was 26 feet deep. This was a factual statement, but turned out not to be a fact, as the Manchester Ship Canal is 29 feet deep. Ha! So much for Geography lessons at our school!

Rapunzel said...

Oh goodness, this is fun to ponder over. I wish I could share it with my long ago OB/GYN who claimed the speaker at his graduation from medical school told all the new young doctors, "Half of the facts you've spent the last eight years learning aren't actually true. Problem is, we don't quite know which half yet."
Which was clearly the speaker's opinion at the moment, but thirty years on it looks like it may have been true indeed.
Maybe I'll spend Lent assessing which of my old opinions have turned out to be facts, and vice versa.

Lynda said...

And people say I'm complicated!!!!! :)) xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi friends :0)

I'm glad you think it's fun, Rapunzel - yes, this is the kind of mental gymnastics my family goes in for...

decided said...

... and sometimes a fact can be expressed to convey an opinion :-)

If we did not have enough money in the budget to provide biscuits for our service users someone could rightly say "they have no money for biscuits any more". But depending how they said it they could mean "they don't value the service users because they don't spend money on small things that make a difference like biscuits" or they could mean "the service is struggling financially, we ought to do what we can to help because we value the service users and don't want them to lose out"

It depends on your motive for saying it, who you are saying it to, how they already feel about the situation and so on. Even telling someone "I was only stating a fact" can be a very emotionally charged opinion although it may indeed be factually true...

It's complicated indeed.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, yes indeed! Tone of voice...